Ecclesiastes 03 – Patience; Surrender; and Charity in Action.

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

 

Patience and Surrender

Indeed, there is a time for everything.  A right time, a due time, for everything.  But that time is not for us to decide.  As v. 11 says: “we cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”  Things may not make sense now, but there is a divine plan at work.

Believing in this divine plan requires two very difficult virtues, some I’ll readily admit I’m not great at: Patience and Surrender. While related, I see them as two distinct practices.  Patience means we wait.  Surrender means we trust.  Putting those two virtues into practice means we must wait for the right time, trusting that God will bring that right time about – even trusting it to happen beyond our lifetime, if need be.

Charity

But patience and surrender do not mean we sit idly by.  There are many beautiful passages in this short chapter, but the one that had the most impact on me was vv. 12-13: “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.  That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil — this is the gift of God.” Emphasis my own, because I want to make sure you see the inclusive nature of this language, the action that it calls us to: we are to do good so that everyone may find satisfaction.

Qohelet does not shrink from acknowledging the evil and indifference in the world. “In the place of judgement — wickedness was there, in the place of justice — wickedness was there,” reads v. 16.  He also acknowledges our base natures in vv. 18-19: “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals, the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath, man has no advantage over the animal.”

But even with these allowances to the harsh natural world, Qohelet realizes this: “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked.” Even believing in universal reconciliation as I do, I’d rather be lumped in with the righteous.  In order to be so lumped, it is our God-given duty to not only find enjoyment for ourselves, but to make sure we help others find that enjoyment, too.  I read this passage as a ringing endorsement of global human rights.  Everyone deserves the right to eat, drink, and find fulfillment in their work (which implies a safe working and home environment – otherwise enjoyment would be hard to come by).

A time to act

“Nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.”  This is a verse from chapter eight that I’ve already quoted once and will probably quote again, because I think it is the best summation of the vision Qohelet has for peaceful and prosperous living.  It is a goal that we should all be working towards, for ourselves and everyone living.  The time to act on that goal is now and always, until it is attained.  The time for different tactics may change, but the time for action does not.

So what does that action look like right now?  Now is an excellent time to call your representatives to say you want to see benefits like Medicaid and SNAP extended, small business loans un-fucked, and decarceration explored further.  It’s also an excellent time to buy giftcards from small businesses that may not be open right now but still have bills (or small businesses that are open, like my own Sylvanaqua Farms! Sorry, had to plug),  support creative entreprenuers (like my awesome cousin Abby who went from teaching Pilates classes in NYC to streaming Pilates classes from her childhood home in Connecticut), and make donations to food banks and other social safety net organizations.

But mainly, I think action means staying at home as much as you are able.  I do not begrudge (or envy) anyone who can’t abide by stay-at-home orders due to their jobs, or who may need to hire babysitters to come into their home, or send their kids to the daycares that are starting to re-open because they can’t miss any more work.  I don’t begrudge you patronizing restaurants with curbside pickup because you just can’t make one more meal, or going to Target for your groceries because then you can also pick out some clothes (I know I need to figure out getting my girls new shoes sometime soon) and maybe a little pick-me-up present for yourself.  Because sometimes what is classified as non-essential does, in some cases, actually become essential.  That rather long qualification aside, I’ll add my plea to the millions of others you’ve probably heard: if you can, please stay home.  Those with cancer, the elderly, the newborns, the chronically ill – not to mention the families and loved ones of all the aforementioned people – are relying upon all of us to abide by social distancing and vigilant hand washing so that they can live.  As Qohelet has made clear, we all have the right to eat, drink, and be glad; and we all have the responsibility to make sure everyone has that right, as well.

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Ecclesiastes 01 – Breath, Qohelet, and Joy

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”
(Read the rest of the chapter here.)

 

An Introduction

Today, shelter-in-place and similar mandates begin rolling back in many states, but even with these relaxations we are no where near “normal” yet, and this virus is not under control.  I wanted to share Ecclesiastes with you all now because it is a book that does not ignore the hardships of the world, but it always cycles back to focus upon joy.  I think that is a mindset we are all in right now: For many, quarantine has been a welcome break, a chance for us to refocus on family, to rest, to realize all the things we actually can live without.  But it is also a time of economic hardship, anxiety, and having to take on roles we never needed to before, such as the role of teacher to our now home-schooled children.  Many of the themes mentioned in Ecclesiastes are ones that can be applied broadly to today: the oppressed and grieving not being comforted, the frustration we all face at some point with not being able to find meaning in our work, the unfairness of a wicked man prospering while a righteous one suffers.  I’m glad this text doesn’t ignore that suffering.  But if you read it with an open heart, more than anything else Ecclesiastes counsels us in the ways of acceptance and joy, and that’s the kind of thing we could all use a little more of in these unusual times.

I honestly was shocked to hear that for much of history Ecclesiastes has been regarded as a pessimistic book (downer opening verses aside).  It has been viewed, more often than not, a weird outlier in the Bible that defies classification, something that needs to be explained away or ignored.  Having parents that grew up in the ’60s , vv 3:1-8 (a time to be born a time to die….made famous by the Byrds’ song Turn Turn Turn) were some of the first verses I recognized fondly as a kid.  Beyond that, it is a book about finding enjoyment and fulfillment within one’s lot in life. Verses 9:7-10, a passage that starts with “Go, eat your food with gladness…” has been one of my favorite passages since I started seriously reading the Bible for myself, and has been dog-eared for over a decade in my go-to NIV text.

Hebel

I believe part of the confusion and in-read pessimism comes from the word Hebrew word hebel. Per my NIV study notes, “this key term appears 35 times in the book and only once elsewhere (Job 27:12). The Hebrew for it originally meant ‘breath.’ ” Hebel has traditionally been translated as “meaningless,” a word with negative connotations, as seen in the opening verses above.  “Breath,” I believe, implies a more positive ephemera.  Breath is of the utmost importance – it is what gives us life, yet it is not something we can hold onto.  We cannot amass “breath” the way we amass wealth, and, even in our age of scientific understanding, it defies our full knowledge.  Yes, CPR works to return breath sometimes, but not always.  The full mystery of “breath” yet eludes us, as does the meaning of life.

But to change v. 2 to ” ‘Breath! Breath!’ says the teacher, ‘Utter breath! Everything is breath’ ” makes the passage even weirder.  In my supportive readings on Ecclesiastes, I came across the translation of hebel as “beyond mortal grasp” from biblical scholar Choon-Leong Seow.  This translation, I believe, most fully captures the author’s meaning of this key term, repeated so often throughout the book.  Which brings me to the author himself.

Qohelet

This book is written by “the Teacher,” or Qohelet (sometimes spelled Qoheleth, too). It is a term that means “teacher” but also is related to “assembly.” I like that correlation, because it makes me think of the choir in Greek plays, and how they are often there to impart wisdom or commentary that other, individual characters might not be able to provide.

One of the things that is so charming about Ecclesiastes is the very personal nature of the writing style.  Of course, first-person pronouns help a lot towards that feeling, but even beyond that, the reader really gets the sense that Qohelet is a real person writing this book.  His original words have had thousands of years to be edited, and there are certainly some passages that sound less Qohelet-y (if I can make up that adjective), but overall there is a character, a voice, an individual behind these words that shines through.

This book is traditionally attributed to Solomon.  There is reason to believe he actually wrote it, but there is no way to be sure.  Solomon or not, Qohelet was a rich man (almost assuredly Qohelet was male, given how he speaks about women, the limitations of scholarship to rich men at the time, and his own self-designation) who was possibly a king (as he claims in v. 12 and elsewhere).  It can be assumed he is older, with a lifetime of experience under his belt, based on all that he has seen. He has spent much of his life in the study of wisdom and folly, the process and findings of which he shares with us in Ecclesiastes.  As Dominic Rudman points out in their article “Woman as Divine Agent in Ecclesiastes,” Qohelet uses “real life” examples to illustrate his search for wisdom, pointing to vignettes he has witnessed himself: the great projects he undertook for his own pleasure, the lone man who toils endlessly even though he has no heir, the tears of the oppressed flowing without a comforter.  He is a talented, lyrical writer who knows how to work a refrain (meaningless, meaningless…), bring in the finer points of rhetorical argument, and paint a visual picture for his audience.

Eat, drink, and be glad

And I will admit, the picture he paints in the first chapter is a bit pessimistic.  With passages like “all things are wearisome more than one can say,” “even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow,” and “for with much wisdom comes much sorrow,” leaves one wondering, so what’s the point?  But that point is exactly what Qohelet goes on to illustrate in the remainder of the book.  It is perhaps best explained in 8:15, but I won’t leave you in suspense until then: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.”  And that, my friends, is the opposite of pessimism.  I can’t think of a better term than joy de vivre.   I hope you will continue reading with me, to see what else Qohelet has to say about finding happiness in your own life, your own joy de vivre, through all life’s circumstances.

Psalm 04 – Processing Our New Normal

Answer me when I call to you,
    my righteous God.
Give me relief from my distress;
    have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

How long will you people turn my glory into shame?
    How long will you love delusions and seek false gods?
Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself;
    the Lord hears when I call to him.

4  In your anger do not sin;
    when you are on your beds,
    search your hearts and be silent.
Offer the sacrifices of the righteous
    and trust in the Lord.

Many, Lord, are asking, “Who will show us any good?”
    Let the light of your face shine on us.
Fill my heart with joy
    when their grain and new wine abound.

8 I will lie down and sleep in peace
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.

 

I am fortunate enough to work from home to begin with, so “sheltering in place” for COVID-19 has been less disruptive to my routine than it has been for many.  I already had my youngest here full time (now her older sister is officially home until August, since the rest of the school year has been cancelled for Virginia), and right now my farm duties consist mainly of keeping everyone fed.  That’s no small feat with three hardworking men in the house (our two farm employees live with us at the moment), but it’s something more or less compatible with watching children simultaneously.

That being said, I feel like we’re living in a state of suspended animation.  The farm is doing well, for now.  We lost all our wholesale business but retail demand has spiked.  How long that will last is uncertain, as economic hardships become more likely for at least some of our customers as time wears on.  Farmer’s markets, due to open in about a month, have been at the very least postponed.  So I wonder what the future will bring, living in a little bubble now with my two girls, doing pretty well at sticking to a schedule that leads us nowhere but down the road for a walk with the dogs, back to the kitchen table for some home-led occupational and speech therapy, and into the garden after quiet time.  It’s pretty much the same day in and day out.  I’m guiltily enjoying the day-to-day of it, except for the rainy days that make outside-time a little less fun and a lot shorter.  But I don’t know what’s on the horizon: will we be able to continue like this for weeks, possibly months?  Will the orders hold, the money hold?  How long til we can go to the playground again, see grandparents again?  Will farmers markets start up in the summer?  Will our restaurants come back online in a way that allows them to order from us again?  All I can do is sit here and wonder.

The dichotomy of spring bursting forth while the world crumbles in on itself is disorienting, as well.  I have gone grocery shopping twice now, and each trip into town it seems like there is a malignancy in the air.  There is a feeling of emergency because the shelves are empty. I’m afraid to breathe, afraid to touch anything.  The produce looks sinister because I do not know what germs might be lingering on the peels and rinds.  But then I get home, and see the remaining daffodils waving cheerily in a warming breeze, birdsong filling the air, and early butterflies fluttering by.  The wildflower meadow I’ve been painstakingly establishing the past two years has lots of new shoots in all different shapes and sizes, promising for a beautiful display starting in a few weeks.  My volunteer strawberries have flowers on them.  A few days ago, I had to turn the TV off after watching a special report on an Italian hospital because it was so unsettling, but that same day I noticed the tulip poplars are leafing out, and my mustard greens were sprouting second leaves.  Fear and joy follow each other in a tight circle right now.

Because of this unprecedented mass pandemic and the global effects it’s having not just on people’s physical health but also their economic and mental health realities, I’m going to set my Lenten reading of Job aside for now.  While Job makes an ever more relatable figure in this time of uncertainty and anxiety, I want to take a break from these passages of anguish to focus first on some passages of comfort and encouragement.  Perhaps, given the time, I’ll be able to provide some distraction, diving into some of the Bible’s most interesting stories, or provide an antidote to some of the fear-mongering eschatological readings some zealots like to throw around in times of crisis.  I’ll take it week by week.

Today I want to introduce you to my favorite Psalm, one I’ve been thinking of a lot in the past couple weeks.  It has been one of my favorites since high school.  It strikes the perfect balance between counsel and rejoicing.  I am not always great at self-regulating, and am very quick to anger when hungry, tired, or stressed.  As such, I have felt like verse four, “in your anger do not sin, when you are on your beds, search your heart and be silent” is always a needed reminder.  My fuse was very short at the beginning of our shelter in place, in truth I had a bit of a breakdown that first Sunday.

I’m terribly ashamed I let it get to that point, but I’m sure that a lot of people out there have similarly been pushed to their limits of late.  If you are having trouble, ask for help.  This is not some vague call for “self care,” a lovely idea that is often hard to put into practice due to constraints of time, money, and family.  No, this is a call to action.  And yes, there are still resources out there right now, even if person-to-person contact is limited.  For myself, I finally started counseling through Better Help – and guess what? They have an unemployment discount. If you are able to pay in bulk, the price keeps dropping.  They’ve also provided this article on free online therapy, and NAMI has this list of hotline resources for those in crisis or needing guidance in where to turn. I also finally got an anti-anxiety medication filled, too.  These two steps have helped me tremendously, and I’m not ashamed to admit to either.  Taking care of your mental health – in the form of counseling, medication, or otherwise – is of the utmost importance, especially in times like these.  Through these things, God has given me relief from my distress, indeed.

As a person prone to anxiety (and in recent years, insomnia) I especially appreciate that last verse, “I will lay me down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” and will often repeat it to myself in an effort to get to sleep. You see, I’ll fully admit to prayer not being the strongest part of my spiritual practice.  “Talking to God” does not come naturally to me, so I appreciate rote phrases, such as this or the Lord’s Prayer.  (The number of easily memorized, rote prayers is one of the things I find most appealing about Catholicism.)  If you, too, struggle with praying in times of trouble – or just in general – I suggest memorizing the last verse of this Psalm as I have and using it as your bedtime prayer.

I am finishing writing this as the girls watch a movie and dinner simmers on the stove.  With Chris throwing everything he has into farming while we can still make some money at it, I’m only left with stolen moments like these that I have time to write.  I’d love to be doing so much more, but I’ve made peace with it.  If a little writing time is all I have to give up, I’m doing pretty well.  I hope you are giving yourself the grace needed to get through this strange time, and would love to hear from you all on how you’re coping.  I am happy to lend an ear to anyone who needs to talk, provide comfort food recipes or activity ideas for small children, or recommend some readings.  Comment or message me, and be sure to take care of yourselves.  God bless, and I’ll be back with something new next Sunday.

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